The next medieval book that the Medievalish Book Club will read together is the wonderful Pearl, the anonymous fourteenth-century poem written by the same poet as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For paid subscribers, every couple of weeks from February 13th-March 27th, I will post a short video and accompanying text with guidance, medieval contexts, a fun dose of Middle English, and attention to special passages in reading Pearl. I’m shaking up our pattern a bit—instead of a new discussion thread, we will post any questions/responses/ideas into the Substack chat app or directly onto the original post.
Pearl is a marvelous alliterative poem of 1212 lines, written in a fairly difficult Middle English dialect. It opens with a mystery as a man who calls himself a jeweler praises his lost gem, a pearl beyond compare:
Perle plesaunte, to princez paye To clanly clos in golde so clere: Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye, Ne proued I neuer her precios pere. So rounde, so reken in vche araye, So smal, so smothe her side were... Beautiful pearl, which it pleases a prince To set radiantly in bright gold: I declare even in those of the orient I have never seen her precious peer. So round, so noble in her array So small and smooth were her sides... (ll.1-6) (translation mine)
This pearl turns out to be no gem at all—but the little daughter of the Jeweler, who has passed away. In a strange dream, the Jeweler meets her again. Yet she is a queen of heaven now, and teaches him the upside-down ways of the Kingdom of God. The entire poem gorgeously unfolds the question: who, or what, is the pearl of great price? Drawing on the poet’s contemporary contexts of pastoral theology, chivalric love poetry, and the wonderfully strange medieval genre of writing now called “dream visions,” the poet gives us a lovely gift in this poem.
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